Tuesday, March 27, 2007

24's Autism

In the most recent episode of Fox Network's hit show 24, which is up there with The Sopranos (the subject of an earlier post) as one of the best series to ever appear on television, we are introduced to a character named Brady who is apparently autistic, although he is never overtly referred to as such within the episode. Not that it was necessary, but I have confirmed this diagnosis by taking a look at the episode guide (the episode in question is from Season 6, identified as "8:00-9:00 PM" which is the manner in which all of 24's episodes are titled) , which includes the following:

8:04 P.M. Gredenko calls a man named Mark Hauser and demands more of the
access he paid for. Hauser will have to download new security protocol to get to
CTU. Hauser asks his autistic brother Brady for help retrieving files. Brady
happily agrees and gets to work on a laptop.

Then, a bit later:

8:21 P.M. Jack arrives at the Hauser home with his TAC team. They quickly
raid the house and shoot at Hauser, who pulls out his shotgun. Brady whimpers as
his brother is apprehended. As the agents try to stabilize Hauser’s wounds, Jack
talks to Brady. Hauser had Brady get through a firewall to set up a proxy server
port.

8:22 P.M. Jack tells Hauser that Brady will be prosecuted for helping
him get information to Gredenko. Jack will keep Brady out of trouble if Hauser
gives up Gredenko. Hauser admits that he was getting security specifications for
the Edgemont Nuclear Power Plant.

8:23 P.M. Doyle returns to CTU and inquires after Nadia, who is being
transferred to a holding facility. Jack tells Buchanan that he wants to use
Brady because Gredenko is coming to see Hauser.
8:28 P.M.Hauser instructs
Brady to listen to Jack.

8:31 P.M. Hauser calls Gredenko and lies about having to go into work.
Hauser says he will leave the protocols with his brother, who will wait for
Gredenko at a parking lot across the street. Hauser is taken away in an
ambulance.


and then, a bit further into the show:

8:44 P.M. Jack is unsure whether Brady will be able to make the plan work,
but he has no other option. He puts an earwig in Brady’s ear so that they can
hear each other and carefully instructs him on what to say to
Gredenko.

8:45 P.M. Brady is placed in position at the lot as the teams set
up.

8:46 P.M. Gredenko’s car pulls up to the lot and he gets out. Unfortunately,
the snipers don’t have a clear shot of him. Speaking Russian, Gredenko orders
his men to shoot Brady. Jack translates this. He then tells Brady to get down on
the ground, and the sniper pegs Gredenko in the neck with a tranquilizer dart. A
firefight ensues with the henchmen and the agents take them all out.

8:48 P.M. Jack sprints to the car to retrieve the frightened Brady. The
agents carry Gredenko into the house. No bombs are in his car.

8:53 P.M. Jack puts Brady into a car and thanks him for his help. Brady is
sent to the hospital to be with his brother.

What the episode guide doesn't say is that the performance of the actor playing Brady is directly derivative of Dustin Hoffman's portrayal of the autistic Raymond in the motion picture Rain Man, the first major representation of autism in the mass media. Now, the late Bernard Rimland was a consultant on the film (for those who don't know who he was, aside from being a father of an autistic son, Dr. Rimland was the medical researcher who established that autism is a biological, neurological condition, not a psychological condition as psychoanalysts, notably the great fraud Bruno Bettelheim, had insisted), and with Rimland's help, Hoffman was able to provide a reasonably accurate portrayal of an autistic adult, especially one who had grown up before the introduction of the Lovaas method of Applied Behavioral Analysis and discrete trials (which has proven to be effective, especially through intervention in early childhood, in modifying and mitigating some of the negative aspects of autism).

But autism is often referred to as a syndrome and a spectrum disorder, and this is because the characteristics of autism vary significantly from one individual to another. In other words, it is not the case that all people with autism, or autistics as the high-functioning prefer to call themselves, sound just like Hoffman in Rain Man. So why does 24 have Brady sound like Hoffman, why make that particular creative decision? One reason may be that the actor had less time to prepare for the role. After all, Brady was a very minor character, not the central character of Raymond, so there was much less reason to put in the effort. Also, there are major time pressures in producing a TV series, so over the course of 24 episodes of 24, there isn't going to be as much preparation going into a single episode as there is into a major motion picture.

But another reason also comes to mind (in addition to rather than instead of the others). By invoking the familiar portrayal of Hoffman in Rain Main, 24 was able to get across the idea that this character is autistic without actually having to say it, let alone get into complicated explanations of the condition. The fact that the autistic character is presented in relation to his brother also draws on the familiar plot of Rain Man. This is why stereotypes are so important for popular culture/mass media, as they were in oral cultures: they provide ready-made, easily recognizable characters, saving the storytellers a great deal of work in explaining who the characters are, allowing them to simply stitch together formulaic characters along with formulaic plots, and on a smaller scale, formulaic expressions. By the same token (pun intended), audiences are spared the effort of figuring out a unique personality. As autism has become epidemic, there will be increasingly more frequent use of fictional characters who are autistic, and while literature may give us something a little better, as was the case for Mark Haddon's The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time which is a marvelous novel about a young man with autism, I think we can expect to see more frequent use of the Rain Man stereotype in the mass media and popular culture.

I should add that Brady also invoked the savant stereotype, as he apparently was a gifted computer hacker. In reality, as I understand it, only a minority of autistics exhibit savant characteristics, and those who do often are very low functioning outside of their "isolated island of ability" (unlike Brady). On the other hand, many high functioning autistics and people with Asperger's Syndrome are drawn to computing (but, without being as low functioning and dependent as Brady apparently is). The actor playing Brady did get the rocking and similar movements down fairly well, but there were a number of times when Jack (the hero of 24) was touching Brady, which in my opinion would set many autistic individuals off, and in any event I just don't see a stranger, even one who identifies himself as a police officer as Jack did, gaining the trust and cooperation of someone like Brady, especially after breaking into the home of Brady and his brother, and after one of Jack's colleagues shot his brother.

But, after all, 24 moves forward at a breakneck pace and there is no time to worry about every little detail. It is, of course, a program about time, about time passing, time elapsing, time flying, about the clock ticking away, the countdown, the deadline, time running out. It represents the worst aspects of the modern experience of time, the metaphor of time is money, a precious commodity that is always in scarce supply (see Lakoff and Johnson's classic study, Metaphors We Live By). But what is bad for us psychologically makes for gripping storytelling, and moving forward in real time and dealing with simultaneity over space makes 24 a truly innovative program, the first program to truly take place in timespace. In all its clock-watching glory, 24 is a program that is strangely and wonderfully autistic in its own right.

1 comment:

Luanne said...

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time is such a beautiful book. I'm ever so glad you've referenced it; the more that might read and understand even a little, what it is like to live with any version of autism, the better. I gave it to my son to read (until very recently, he's had no other interests except reading - anything and everything, non-stop always. And most of that above my head!) When he'd completed reading it, "Mum, he reminds me of me. That's what it's like to be me." Thanks for that plug Lance!